Laurie Mealing missed many of her daughter’s basketball games while she played for UCF from 2007-11. She has missed holidays and birthdays and slept through Angelica’s high school graduation.

But on Oct. 11 when Angelica accepted the Courageous Student-Athlete award at the National Consortium for Academics and Sports Giant Steps awards banquet, Laurie was in the room, captivated by Angelica’s every movement and spoken word.

“I know I got an award for being a courageous student-athlete,” Angelica said, “but I think that took a lot of courage for her to come, too.”

Laurie got pregnant at a young age, so the two shared a relationship more like that of best friends rather than mother and daughter. Life changed for Angelica at the age of 15.

As a single parent and high-school dropout, Laurie had difficulty finding a job and turned to exotic dancing to pay the bills and support her family, which now included a 6-year-old brother for Angelica. Angelica noticed her mother’s behavior started to change, but she thought it was solely because of her mother’s late-night work schedule.

“Having never been around [drugs], I didn’t know the symptoms,” Angelica said. “Finally, at my high school graduation I saw her asleep in the front row. I just knew that wasn’t my best friend anymore.”

She pleaded with her mother’s closest friend, whom she calls Aunt Roshonda, to tell her what was going on. She finally told Angelica her mother had been abusing drugs and her dependency was getting worse.

Angelica headed off to college, but she carried with her the weight of her mother’s drug addiction, which was leading to arrests and jail sentences. During her first two years at UCF, when she wasn’t in class or on the basketball court, she didn’t want to leave her bedroom.

“I was always scared that one day I would get a call saying she overdosed,” Mealing said. “I rarely heard from her. The only time I was sane with the situation was when I knew she was in jail because I knew she was clean. I knew she had a roof over her head and I knew she was OK.”

She did not talk about the situation with anyone. Her grades were mediocre, and she admits she had a bad attitude and a smart mouth when it came to life with the basketball team.

Women’s basketball head coach Joi Williams did not give Angelica an inch. The two butted heads frequently during those first two seasons, but Williams refused to give up on her player. She continually preached that no matter what the circumstance, Angelica could not use her pent-up anger as an excuse for her whole life. She needed to try to break the cycle.

“My hope was that if I could help her, it would be well worth it,” Williams said. “I care deeply about each one of my athletes. I will never give up on them, especially when they are making an effort to better themselves and move in a positive direction. It gives me great satisfaction when I look at her now and see the woman she has become and how much she has grown. I am extremely proud of her.”

Looking back on the experience, Angelica grasps why Williams was just as uncompromising in her opinions as Angelica was in her own at the time.

“Coach is concerned about life on the court, but she’s more concerned about what we’re going to do after basketball is over and the women that we’re going to become,” Mealing said. “I understand that now. I can say I appreciate why she was so hard on us and on me in particular.”

As her junior year got underway, Angelica found a new perspective. She doesn’t remember an exact moment that made everything click. All she can recall is knowing that she needed a change.

“Progressively, I started taking baby steps because I knew I couldn’t keep living like this,” Angelica said. “I wasn’t going to get myself anywhere. I was going to lose my scholarship and end up back home doing God knows what.”

Her attitude improved. She pulled her grades up. She was having fun again.

Last year, her senior year, another blow came: She required season-ending knee surgery in February after tearing her ACL. She was devastated.

She knew the team needed her, so she remained a leader on the sideline. For the rest of the season, the Knights dedicated every minute on the court to her.

“As a team, we always talk about when times get hard, what are you going to think about? What’s going to drive you to do better?” Williams said. “Jelly was the motivation that they chose. It was very fitting because she certainly was motivation for me and the coaching staff – just knowing what she had been through and realizing she wasn’t going to play any more games. We did everything in our power so that we would be in a position to win a championship her senior year.”

When the streamers burst from the Don Haskins Center ceiling to signal UCF’s second championship in three years, Angelica was there on crutches, smiling. The team elected her to accept the trophy on its behalf and also pushed her to be the first to climb the ladder to cut the net.

“I needed that,” Angelica said. “To know that they were out there playing for me, it meant a lot. It was just an amazing feeling. The coaches, trainers, teammates, everybody was very supportive. There were plenty of times over that 2-3 month span where I broke down, and they were always there to pick me up.”

For as long as Angelica can remember, basketball was the only passion in her life. Then she heard about UCF’s DeVos Sport Business Management program.

Angelica credits UCF director of student services Marcus Sedberry and women’s basketball team academic advisor Sarah Hill as the two driving influences that pushed her toward the renowned program. Angelica was scared to apply; fearful she wouldn’t be accepted. Sedberry and Hill insistently encouraged her to give it a shot.

It was then that Angelica opened up about her life in an essay to earn admittance to the program. That essay was grounds for her nomination to the Giant Steps Courageous Student-Athlete award presented by the NCAS.

“It was one of the biggest highlights of my life,” Angelica said.

About a month before the awards banquet, Laurie completed another sentence in jail. When Angelica spoke to her mother over the phone to invite her to the ceremony, it had been months since she had heard her voice.

Laurie did not know her daughter had written an essay detailing her life’s hardships for the past seven years, but she promised Angelica that she wouldn’t miss this moment for anything. Laurie arrived in Orlando a day before the banquet and Angelica shared her essay and her perspective with her mother for the first time.

“She said that it hurt but that it was something she needed to hear,” Mealing said. “Like I said at the banquet, I just leave it in God’s hands. Whatever happens is meant to happen, but I know one day she’ll get out of it. Hopefully this was the push that she needed.”

Mealing graduated with her bachelor’s degree in December 2010 and will graduate with her master’s from the DeVos program in December 2012. She doesn’t know what the future holds, but she is certain basketball will play a role in it.

“I feel like basketball saved my life,” Mealing said, “and any way I can give back to the sport, I want to do it.”